Writers are inspired and informed by authors they’ve read. I asked some best-selling authors what they like to read most. This week, I’ve asked two very different authors for their opinions.
Best-selling Toby Neal is author of the Lei Crime series, set in her home state of Hawai’i; Russell Blake writes thrillers from his home in Mexico.
Name three characteristics of books that you like. What makes you keep reading a book? What are some books that you weren't able to put down until you finished them?
I love a book with vivid characters in interesting situations most of all. I'm a voracious reader and read a variety of genres: mystery/suspense, romance, literary, memoir, sci-fi...First and foremost, the characters have to be three-dimensional and capture my interest. I also like original imagery and word choice "shaking his hand felt like grabbing a gel-filled surgical glove" is an image I remember from a new book I'm blurbing for mystery writer Thomas Matthews. Original! Memorable! I like writing that feels confident, fresh, fast moving with a deeper message behind the outward action — and I write the kinds of books I enjoy reading.
Things I hate:
- formulaic plots
- overdescription and qualifiers: "she gasped, wailed, screeched"
- wandering narrative — I want to be anchored in each scene with sensory cues. New writers often launch into long dialogues that then float, unanchored, and we lose the setting
- self-conscious wannabe sophistication, like no punctuation (literary can be very annoying to me).
In short, if a book has dynamic characters and solid writing, I'll read it and probably review it too!
In fiction, I'd have to say that I look for different things depending upon my mood. When I'm in the mood for a mystery/thriller, I look for a combination of pace, plot and prose. If the pace is fast and the plot engaging I'm hooked, but if the prose does more than simply move me along, I'll be recommending the book to my friends.
I think the last book I couldn't put down was one of James Lee Burke’s — Last Car to Elysian Fields, I believe. Before that, Lawrence Block’s The Burglar Who Counted the Spoons. Although these are very different styles, I found them both fully engaging and finished them within a few days.
When I'm in the mood for literary fiction, it's all about the prose. A great example of what I'm into would be Ben Fountain’s Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk — quirky, unusual, but brilliant prose. Frankly, I have so little time to read these days, with my publishing schedule, I'm unlikely to have enough time to read an entire book without putting it down. But those were books I put everything aside to finish.
Do you consciously try to emulate these books? If so, what form does that take: plot, structure, characters, settings, author's voice and word choice?
Good lord, no. There's no way I could come close to James
Lee Burke’s word choice or author voice, although I aspire to at least get in
the same ballpark. I'd say that I tend to ignore other authors once I sit down
to write — I try to learn while I'm reading, and then forget the specifics,
allowing their prose to color my perception without creating something I
I don't like to deconstruct when I'm reading, and the only way I could see myself emulating with any accuracy would be if I read, deconstructed, and then deliberately set out to use what I'd analyzed, which would take all the joy out of writing for me.
I've written ten books and a memoir. Seven of them are published with great reviews. I don't need to emulate anyone anymore, but when I started out in crime mystery/police procedural, I was emulating my "idols" Michael Connelly and Lisa Gardner and tried to "show not tell" virtually everything. My first book, Blood Orchids, is much choppier and more gritty in writing style than later works, where I found my "comfort zone" of a more descriptive style and less bad language and gritty violence. I prefer a more PG-13 level of violence, and my readers like that, too. I've also developed a series that's unique in the police procedural genre, which features a protagonist who starts out very damaged from child sexual abuse, gradually improves and recovers over the course of six books, and grows through a subplot love story that readers are crazy about!
Most of my early author idols’ protagonists remain fairly static, and that’s come to bore me as a reader. I eventually abandoned Stephanie Plum and Sue Grafton because the main character never changed. That frustrated me — perhaps because of my background as a mental health therapist, I want my characters to learn and grow over the course of the book(s). I hear repeatedly from readers that get hooked on my books that they like that, too.
Do you try to avoid any of the techniques or conventions followed by your favourite writers?
I try to avoid being clichéd and formulaic (see above annoyance list) and if my favourite writers devolve into that zone, than yes, I not only stop letting them influence me, I stop reading them. For instance, I’m not reading Patricia Cornwell anymore because I feel like she’s obsessed with detail and her books have slowed down too much for me. I can take a class in forensics if that’s what I want, rather than reading that for pleasure!
I've become much more confident in my own voice and vision, and while I read a lot (as I said above) I try to expand my own repertoire by reading all kinds of things, including nonfiction that can inform my plots. One new "indie" mystery writer I really respect is Gae Lynn Woods. I wait for her books, and they inevitably are more gruesome and twisty than mine, with Texas local color — and I love the nested mysteries and distinctive characters she does. I also really respect Gillian Flynn for her truly original plots — but I hate her characters! All of them! And yet, they’re so bizarre and captivating I can’t stop reading. Now that’s a good book, that keeps you reading even when you want to stop.
Every author I really like tends to have something intriguing in their use of language, but I don't think they follow specific conventions. None I'm able to deduce, at any rate. The hallmark of an effective author is the ability to mind-meld with the reader and transport them along, to put them in the same place as the characters, make them hear, see, smell, touch the world you've created. So beyond trying to do so, I can't say as I consciously avoid or advocate any one thing beyond clear communication while creating beautiful sentences.
What rules of writing do you intentionally break?
I try to push out with new combinations of POV in every book. Lei Crime #6, Shattered Palms, coming out in March, is the first book I've written with only one, third-person POV.
My most innovative featured an investigator in third-person past tense, and a bad guy POV in first-person present tense. It made for a sometimes jarring reading experience, and I wanted readers to be uncomfortable — I was writing about sex trafficking and sadism, without a lot of gruesomeness. I wanted the reader to be in the head of a sociopath and see their way of seeing the world. It was challenging, but I think I pulled it off in Black Jasmine.
Well, I don't believe that there are many actual rules, more like author preferences that have been laid out as rules by the dogmatic. In that regard, I don't much care about the proscription against adverbs in dialogue tags, nor am I afraid to open with the weather, nor do I particularly fear overwriting. So I guess you could say that while I know all the rules, I break or abide by them as the story mandates rather than out of some slavish devotion.
Thank you, Toby and Russell!
Toby Neal grew up on the island of Kauai in Hawaii. After a few stretches of “exile” to pursue education, she has made the islands her home for the last fifteen years. Toby is a mental health therapist, a career that has informed the depth and complexity of the characters in her books. Outside of work and writing, Toby volunteers and enjoys life in Hawaii through outdoor activities, including beach walking, body boarding, scuba diving, photography and hiking.
A Wall Street Journal and The Times (UK) featured author, Russell Blake is the bestselling author of twenty-five books, including the thriller novels Fatal Exchange, The Geronimo Breach, The Voynich Cypher, Zero Sum, Silver Justice, King of Swords, Upon A Pale Horse, the Assassin series, the Delphi Chronicle trilogy, the JET series, and his latest BLACK series.
Non-fiction includes the international bestseller An Angel With Fur (animal biography) and How To Sell A Gazillion eBooks In No Time (even if drunk, high or incarcerated), a parody of all things writing-related.
Blake lives in Mexico and enjoys his dogs, fishing, boating, tequila and writing, while battling world domination by clowns.
Visit his blog, RussellBlake.com where he publishes his periodic thoughts, such as they are. Follow him on twitter @BlakeBooks.